Saturday, September 17, 2011

Canoeing the Thames one short-lived beautiful Summer...

The forecast says rain. We sit discussing the bleak prediction, just arrived and seated on our train seats. Reading is a good hour away. We get aquatinted. Of the five people am going to spend the next two days with I know only one :). Everyone is lovely. I finish my coffee and settle back in my seat. The scenery outside is beautiful. Am a little nervous. Most in this group have some sort of rowing experience. Actually thats an understatement. Two were rowing as part of teams in Oxford and one owns a boat. Am hoping am not the one who is going to slow the rest down :). The plan is to paddle along a section of the Thames starting at Reading, camp overnight and paddle back.

Collecting out canoes..
We get to Reading. The boat hire is a short drive away. We get off and get to see our canoes. Canadian Canoes are much more stable and much bigger than regular canoes. We decide to go 3 to one boat and 2 to the other. The river is beautiful, wonderfully green but in stark contrast to the spring colours all around. Its sunny, a little cold just to remind us that we are in a part of the world where the sun holds little sway..


As we watch couple of geese swim past. The gooslings look adorable. They swim close in the little after waves created by their mum and dad.
We are off..
Bouancy aids on, we load our bags onto the boats.  I sling my camera around my neck. We are ready to leave. We gently paddle along. The boat moves. I am amazed, only because I half expected it would require something more drastic. As we progress the others explain the mechanics of good rowing. I enjoy the lesson.
Bubbles..
We keep rowing. This scenic stretch of the Thames is breathtakingly beautiful.  We watch owners walk their dogs. Unlike the dogs I've seen these ones don't seem too scared about the water. They jump in and frolic about, splashing , gently wagging their tails. Its a happy sight to watch. The owners don't seem to concerned either. Am enjoying the relaxed pace of river life as I let my thoughts wander. Dogs are so similar to people. The ones I knew back home were always scared of the water totally at odds with the ones here who seem to welcome it. Am guessing like human beings they are probably natural swimmers , but those that don't really swim loose the ability to take to the water . Here in the west most people know to swim and have been doing so since they were kids. As opposed to most of us from a country like India made even more complex by cultural and social norms. Very strangely my grandmother back home is a natural swimmer, having lived by the river as a child, it was in its waters in the town of Tirunelveli  that she grew up.
I love the water, and I know to swim..yaaaay!
Our passage along these waters is marked by locks. We get to our first one. Locks were first built during the middle-ages to regulate the flow of water into water mills. They number about 45 and the one we are at is closed at the moment. We wait out turn.  The gates gently open and we row into the lock. They close behind us. We hold on to the chains on the sides. The water level gently decreases. Once the level is on par with the stretch of river on the other side we stop moving down. The gates on the other side open and we row out. Its beautiful and terribly exciting.
The first Lock..

We wait our turn for the gates to open..

We are in.. The water level gently decreases..

And we oar ourselves out..
We paddle on.  All the activity and fresh air makes us hungry. We stop and picnic on the river before continuing upwards,
We paddle along..
Along the Thames are other boats. I assume they belong to come of the people who live in the houses along the banks. Some of these places even seem to have some sort of boat park (if there was such a word) attached.
The willows weep with their hair about their faces.s.. Virginia Wolfe..
As always am drawn to the sight of the weeping willows sitting along the banks.  Birds abound. Am thinking of Virginia Wolfe and what she said about these beautiful willows, sweeping with their hair about their faces..
A gosling sails past..
More birds float effortlessly past : Canadian Geese, Swans, Mallards,  an odd Cormorant here and there.. Dogs run along the banks. All our conversation now centers around the river and its waters. A friend speaks of her experience of getting in the way of a territorial swan when she was out rowing in Oxford. Swans are known to charge people, the full length of their wings spread out.. They can easily break an arm, she says. As if to affirm what she says two swans fly past. They are powerful birds in the air. Having seen them, I don't doubt what she says.  A little later we would swim a little close to one of them by accident. The swan tries to move closer to the bank. But on the other side there are two beautiful labradors who in their usual friendly way edge closer to the waters wagging their tails. The swan put its wings up slightly and hissed (am not joking) . It wasn't a pretty sight.  Alarmed we desperately tried to get away from the aggressive bird. This time we were rather lucky I should say! But it was a lesson about the river and its other beautiful people..
More dogs...
We reach our second lock and we are in for a treat. Some people are so great at organization , that they manage to pull of the incredible even when all we have is a little boat...
And so we are treated to cream teas!.. Well I did not really know what a cream tea was before we moved here and in my imagination I imagined tea with a big blob of cream on it.. (Yuck!). It was not quite what I had imagined. A cream tea is a divine creation, A scone with jam and some clotted cream on it... Totally delicious! After all that rowing we definitely need the sugar.
We break...
We paddle on. Whats most amazing is seeing birds nest. We row past a coot sitting on its little home, an elevated mound of twigs and leaves right by the river banks. Its an amazing sight.
A well concealed nest..
We see more birds. Theres not a cloud in sight. We couldn't have been more lucky. We are hoping the weather lasts. The sun it truly out for us



Finally we get to the point where we are about to break for lunch, the beautiful town of Henley upon Thames. We meet family . The spread is amazing. At a distance we can see the fiver arched bridge, the most famous structure standing on this stretch of the river.



Henley is historic. Located strategically upon the Thames its port supplied London with timber and grain. The 17th and 18th centure marked a period of wealth and prosperity and Henley found itself becoming a thriving business hub.

A mallard with her little duckling..
From where we picnic we can see the famous bridge of five arches and the church of St Mary in the background. We dont have enough time to visit the bustling market square.
The church of St Mary in the background...
Henley plays host to the annual Royal Regatta which sees some of the world's finest rowers compete on these waters.
Rowing past the five arched bridge..
Lunch done we set off once again and for the first time I see a black swan. Its a beautiful bird, the black plumage in striking contrast to its red bills.  They are supposedly found in Australia and were once found in New Zealand. Unfortunately driven to extinction in the later, they were reintroduced. They do find mention in cultural references and are featured on the flag of Western Australia.
A black swan..
The river is full of life. Birds and broods swim by, and attentive parents don't take lightly to boats in their way. Some of the little ones are so cute. They seem to stay close and are rather well behaved for kids of their age..
The river is full of life..
We paddle along a rather busy section of the river. The waters get swifter. We struggle to keep control. Theres a bit when we actually find ourselves at the very center where the current is strongest and we struggle to get back to the sides which are safer. We start counting down to synchronize rowing and it works. We are at Hurley Lock, our campsite for the night - Phew!.. we survived!
Our Campsite..
Dinner is a fleeting affair. We are glad to call it a day. :)
More ducklings..
The next morning , am desperate for some hot tea. Unfortunately the pubs are not open this early.  Outside everyone else is up and about. We watch a few ducklings from close quarters. They are beautiful. Am sure they are going to be beautiful birds!
A church by the river..
We leave Hurley and paddle on. There are more interesting sights along the river. What I like best is that inspite of all the houses I see along the banks the river has still retained its character. In facts life has integrated itself beautifully with the running waters
Feeding swans..
The second day sees a smaller stretch covered. We are almost there. Its near afternoon.

Nearly there..
Back in Reading, we celebrate with champagne and coke and toast the bride to be! Its a lovely sunny day and we stretch out sore legs and sore arms and relax a bit. Our boats are to be left here in the park and will be collected later by the company.


Its been a wonderful two days and am in love with the Thames. Its a beautiful river brimming with history and bursting with character. I really do hope I get to see more towns and cities along her banks.

Meena Venkataraman

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A close encounter of the Puffin kind..

We are on our way to see Shetlends showiest inhabitants.. yes I said showiest, white face, black eyes, orange feet, the entire deal. Am super excited. The morning air is cool. The sun is out and theres not a cloud in sight. Samburgh Head is the Southern most tip of the mainland.

Winding our way to Samburgh Head..
In a distance we see a lighthouse, the first that was built in Shetlands. That's not its only claim to fame as we were to discover. It was built by Robert Louis Stevenson who accompanied Sir Walter Scott to Shetlands in the 1814, a journey which made itself into the pages of his book 'The Pirate'. We park and walk up. At first we see nothing. A Fulmar sits totally indifferent to our presence.
Samburgh Head, with the lighthouse built by Robert Louis Stevenson in the background

Recent Sightings..
We walk a little further and peek over a wall. And then we see them black and white specks in a distance. I cant get good enough pictures even with my full zoom. They are incredibly cute birds.
Puffins.. The first ones we spotted :)..

Two to a pod..
I read that most seabirds are loyal, pairing for life and staying faithful to their partners.And so most of the return to the same nests year after year.  Puffins spend the winter out at sea and when summer comes romance is in the air. Happy reunions marked are by rubbing their beautiful orange bills and they are back together again. Their size can be deceiving , and they have powerful feet and beaks which helps them carve out little homes along the cliffs. They nest in burrows and are locally called the 'Tammy Norries'.   
Check out my Orange feet...
They are extremely pretty birds. We walk up and we see more puffins. This time a lot closer. We stay out quiet , so that no noise scares these beautiful little things away. Every now and then one of them decides to fly down into the water below. they look more like butterflies and they might not compare very well to the graceful gliding movements of the fulmars , skuas and gulls. But what they lack in flight they make up for in plumage. Undoubtedly the most photogenic among all the birds we have seen here.
Oops...Lost my footing.. 



We walk up to the lighthouse and spend some time looking at things there. The views from up here are stellar. Blue seas and clear skies. Samburgh head is the best place to spot Orcas they say. But we are in the wrong season for such sighting. We shall come here again.. :)




We leave Samburgh head waving goodbye to the bright visions of orange , black and white.

Meena 

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